The Rangers' Michael Young Problem

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 07: Michael Young #10 of the Texas Rangers scores in the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 7, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. Texas won the game 4-3. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Though you wouldn't know it from what has been written by most of the D/FW media, Michael Young is having a pretty terrible 2012 season. His numbers to date:


G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB CS AVG OBP SLG
2012 - Michael Young 67 273 32 74 11 1 3 28 13 36 2 1 .271 .301 .352

Over at SBN Dallas, J.P. Starkey writes that Ron Washington needs to bench Young and find a new DH:

If the Rangers are going to have an optimal team come October as they try to win a third straight pennant, they'll bench Michael Young and find a better designated hitter around the trading deadline. Sure, it'd be awesome to grab somebody like Greinke, and stick him at the top of a playoff rotation -- but it'd also be very, very costly, and there's no guarantee Greinke stays after his contract expires.

* * *

Point is, there's not a need in the rotation. There is, however, an obvious and glaring need to replace Young in Texas' lineup, and the cost shouldn't be prohibitive. The only downside is dealing with a whiny Michael Young.

While this may be true on paper, the reality is not that simple.

By any measure, Michael Young has had a poor season thusfar. His 653 OPS this season is 70th in the A.L. out of 82 qualified players. That poor OPS figure is exacerbated by the fact that Young is primarily a DH -- his only job is to hit. Yes, he plays some first base (and will be playing a lot more first base the next few weeks while Mitch Moreland is out), and occasionally fills in at second base and third base, but he's poor at those positions...he's on the team for his bat, not his glove. His -0.6 fWAR is tied for next to last in the A.L. among qualified position players, ahead of only the Tigers' Brennan Boesch, and he has a -1.3 bWAR, which puts him last in the A.L. among qualified position players.

The issue of Young playing regularly, and hitting 5th in the lineup consistently (except when Josh Hamilton was out, which resulted in Young being moved to the #3 spot), has been discussed at length, with the most common rejoinder from the media, and from Ron Washington, for that matter, being that Young is proven, he's a consistent hitter, he put up a .338/.380/.474 line last year, and besides, the other candidates to move up in the order (Mike Napoli and Nelson Cruz) haven't been any great shakes themselves.

And I hear that argument, and understand where its coming from. That said, Young turns 36 in October. Yes, he had one of his best offensive seasons last year (his .369 wOBA and 127 wRC+ were both the second highest numbers of his career), but in 2010, he had a .284/.330/.444 line, and in 2008, he had a .284/.339/.402 line (with a very strong 892 OPS campaign sandwiched in between). Point being, Young is at an age where players can (and often do) fall off a cliff. A 35 year old having a steep decline in production shouldn't be surprising. And it may very well be that Young is done.

ZiPS isn't all that optimistic about his fate from here on out. The "rest of the season" ZiPS projection at FanGraphs projects a .286/.329/.410 line from Young the rest of the way*...better than what he's done so far, but not good enough to be a quality DH.

* To save needless confusion and arguing in the comments, what ZiPS is projecting is that from June 21, 2012, through the last day of the 2012 season, Young will hit .286/.329/.410. It is not projecting that his final line for the 2012 season would be .286/.329/.410.

Part of what makes this first half so alarming is that Young's offensive value is almost entirely tied into his ability as a pure hitter. He doesn't walk much, and even in his prime he didn't have a whole ton of power...what he does well is hit line drives consistently, which means a high BABIP and a high batting average that drives his overall value. Young's career BABIP is .336. His BABIP this year is just .300 -- 67 points lower than last year's .367 mark, and the lowest BABIP he's had since his rookie year, when his BABIP was .294 in 429 plate appearances.

Why the drop? According to FanGraphs' batted ball data, Young isn't hitting line drives anymore. His line drive rate this season is 21.3%, the second lowest of his career (behind 2010's 18.5% rate). Young also isn't hitting many fly balls -- his fly ball rate is 24.2%, by far the lowest of his career -- which means fewer extra base hits, while his ground ball rate is 54.6%, dramatically higher than at any other point in his career (he's never before been above 50%).

In the abstract, it isn't unreasonable to believe that Young has hit the wall, that he's pretty close to being done as an every day player, and that the Rangers are best served, as Starkey suggests, by going and finding a new DH to take over the rest of the way.

As a practical matter, though, that's not going to happen. The Rangers simply aren't going to do that. They can't do that.

We joke about the whole leadership thing and how the press fawns over Young, but no one disputes that he commands a great deal of respect from his fellow players. The Sports Illustrated player poll had Young named as the most underrated player in the game recently, something that at least reflects the esteem in which his peers hold him.

Which is why I take issue with Starkey's saying that the only downside with benching Young is dealing with a whiny Michael Young. The downside is the backlash that would be generated in the locker room, the anger that I think such a move would generate from Young's teammates, and the possibility that Ron Washington would lose the clubhouse with such a move. This is, in fact, why I think the Rangers were so eager to try to trade Young after the 2010 season...it was to get him out the door so that they wouldn't be faced with this dilemma.

Ron Washington isn't going to bench Michael Young. Neither would just about any other manager who was in his shoes. Young might get slid down a spot in the order, if he continues to struggle and Mike Napoli or Nelson Cruz heat up. He might lose a few at bats if the Rangers got a quality bench bat. But the Rangers are not, in the middle of the season, going to trade him, or bench him, because they don't want to risk the repercussions in the clubhouse.

We need to hope Young turns it around and starts hitting the rest of the season. He's not going anywhere.

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